- The Many Faces of Christ: Portraying the Holy in the East and West, 300–1300 by Michele Bacci
Despite its title, this wide-ranging study of how different religious traditions represent and visualize the holy does not focus exclusively—or even predominantly—on representations of Christ. Thus the book’s title actually refers mainly to the material in its second half. That said, this work has many merits, among them that the author actually does draw parallels and comparisons with depictions of other religions’ sacred images and delivers a rather wide-ranging study of the construction of holy portraits throughout history and across cultures. And, one must say, the book’s introduction raises an important question about when portraits of Jesus emerged and how they were transmitted. Moreover, it offers some theories about why his facial features came to be standardized in Christian art of both East and West from the Middle Ages to the present.
In the first part of the volume, Bacci considers more than images of Christ and more even than “faces” by discussing sacred topography, holy footprints, and relics, as well as portraits of saints and holy men and women from Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam. For example, the first chapter of the book opens with accounts of various (and sometimes misunderstood) images of the Buddha; it moves to a discussion of Manichaean artifacts (including an illuminated scroll and depictions of Mani himself). What follows are broad, introductory studies of related themes pertaining to visualizing the holy: miraculously-made images of the Virgin Mary and Christ, pilgrimages to Jewish and Christian shrines, the Hindu doctrine of darśan, and ascetic practices of averting the gaze (so as develop a more finely tuned inner eye). This discussion concludes with a condensed analysis of ancient theories of how someone’s external appearance (physiognomy) was believed to display his or her internal character. Those readers who primarily seek a close study of how actual depictions of Christ were achieved and disseminated (as well as justified) will want to skip to the second half of the book.
Turning to the problem of how Christ was imagined to appear, the author raises the obvious yet important debate over whether and how an artistic depiction might render both divine and human natures in a single image. He then moves to a series of interesting and controversial topics, including the significance assigned by biblical and patristic literature to the Messiah’s purported beauty or ugliness (and the age-old question of how one defines beauty) and the belief that physical appearance reflects character, virtues, or status. Bacci also considers the varied depictions of Jesus in early Christian art, including the debates over his complexion, hair texture, eye color, stature, beard, and the incorporation of certain features that [End Page 592] would mark him as identified with one ethnic group or another. This last launches the author into an interesting but perhaps tangential and general discussion about the ancient perceptions of skin tone, baldness, and various meaning assigned to growing, shaving, or cutting/trimming/curling hair. Bacci reasonably concludes that Jesus’s physical appearance in art is not only symbolic and culturally constructed but also a “powerful symbol of alterity” (p. 204) in the present day.
In sum, this book is both more and less than it would seem to be from its title. It is filled with what some may find extraneous but interesting asides, a few odd mistakes of historical fact (for example, that the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome was originally dedicated to commemorate the martyrdom of Pope Callixtus I), yet displays a kind of idiosyncratic genius that readers will find both enlightening and refreshing.